Cumin is easily one of the top staple spices in cooking and pickling throughout most of the world, an aroma and taste that up the game of vegetables, meats, and cheeses.
Americans still tend to think of cumin as an exotic spice. True, you find it in a lot of Indian, Pakistani, Arabic and Mediterranean cuisine but cumin was the first “populist” spice. When spices were reserved for the wealthiest households of Egypt and Greece, Cumin was an easy-to-grow, beloved plant that had cumin so widely traded that, by the 6th century you could be find it from Vietnam to Sweden, and in parts of South America and the Caribbean.
I also have to believe, back in the Old West, that there was some Indian or African cook who signed up for kitchen duty with a round-up. A lot of classic Southwestern “American” cooking, from Texas Chili to barbecue beans, find themselves drawn into the aromatic wonders of cumin.
Used for millennia as a digestive aid, cumin can improve how you process your food… a bit.
Pronounced “khu-min”, it is a member of the parsley family, closely related to anise, caraway, coriander, dill and fennel. The seeds are about the size of a caraway, but their experience?
Cumin seeds have a musky aroma , with a nutty bite that ends with a slightly sweet finish. The lead is definitely aroma, and, if you use the whole seed there is the visual follow-up.
Why use the seeds rather than the powder? Lightly toasting the seed in a dry skillet over medium heat will release the oils and allow the aromas and flavors to bloom, and the seed dresses up dishes and provides a nutty bit like a caraway seed would in a rye bread, on a smaller scale, because cumin is an intense flavor, and less is definitely more.
You can cook with the seeds whole, or grind them, or buy ground. I’m all for the grinding, as you get many of the volatiles that make up their smell at their peak.
Originally cultivated in Egypt and Persia (modern day Iran), traders spread the seed throughout the Mediterranean, and then into Europe. Today, the plant is still grown in Iran, but, 70% of the world’s cumin supply comes out of India, where it is a go-to spice. India consumes 63% of the world’s cumin! Syria used to be the next-biggest suppliers, pre-conflict. Iran and Turkey are the next biggest growers and the remainder, about 11% comes from other countries. It’s a highly drought-tolerant plant that does not radically alter in flavor, unlike peppers, so it is easily transported to similar dry hot climates.
Used as part of birdseed and exported to many countries, the plant can grow wild in many parts of the world.
Cumin has been in use since ancient times. Seeds excavated at the Syrian site Tell ed-Der have been dated to the second millennium BC. In the ancient Egyptian civilization, cumin was used as spice and as preservative in mummification. It was introduced into the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese.
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